Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Japanese protestors flirt with fantasy

Today Japan's electrical power companies held shareholder meetings across the country. TEPCO, the company responsible for the Tokyo region and also the owners of the troubled Fukushima Daiichi plant, held their meeting in a huge hall in Tokyo.  Amongst other things, management passed a proposal to accept a massive injection of funds from the government, to the tune of 1 trillion yen ($12.5 billion) from the government, effectively nationalizing the company.  During the meeting some shareholders heckled the speakers, and outside the TEPCO meeting environmentalist and civic action groups demanded an end to nuclear power in Japan.

One protestor said, "I don't want TEPCO to take taxpayer money and raise electricity rates in order to avoid responsibility for the Fukushima accident', a statement which betrays an extraordinary ignorance of reality - specifically a 100 billion dollar reality, which is the estimated cost of the accident, including dealing with the accident itself, cleanup, contamination, evacuation, compensation and decommissioning.  TEPCO has been charged with paying for much of this.  Which makes one wonder where the protestor thinks the money will come from, if not from the government or increased electricity prices.

And in a massive display of unintended irony, a group of shareholders and their environmentalist allies put forward the motion that the Kashiwazaki nuclear plant in Niigata prefecture be decommissioned and a gas power plant built in its place.  Is it possible to imagine an action that will have a more detrimental effect upon the environment than building a gas-powered plant?  Building a pollution-producing plant that pours massive amounts of CO2 into the atomosphere, and mothballing a building that produces massive amounts of cheap safe power that is CO2 free?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

My Geiger Counter

I bought this little baby on the weekend at Yodabashi camera, a major electronics store.  It cost about 10,000 yen, $120 or so.  Here's a shot from my living room:

This detector measures radiation in microsieverts per hour.  There's a bit of variation, anything from less than 0.05 (which just reads as 'low') to about 0.2.  These kind of readings are very miniscule, reflecting natural background levels of radiation that are found anywhere in the world.  For example, this measurement above of 0.15 micro/hr works out to 1.3 millisieverts a year, well within background radiation.  Yesterday I went for a walk along the stream near my house and the readings were the same.  On the weekend I'll go up to the park underneath the zoo up the hill from this apartment, and post some readings from there.  I have heard that last year people were concerned at readings from the park, due to 'caesium accumulating on the leaves'.

It looks increasingly likely that at least some nuclear power reactors will be restarted before the summer reaches its peak.  Specifically, reactors at the Oi power station in Fukui prefecture are being targeted for imminent restart in order to prevent power shortages in the huge Kansai region.  It is known that the prime minister supports this move, and today the governor of Fukui prefecture toured the power plant to 'ensure its safety'.  Amongst other things, new diesel generators have been installed on a hillside above the reactor to power cooling systems in the event of a devastating tsunami.  There's that reflective hindsight again: if only the Japanese could turn their technological prowess to the production of time machines!  They could go back in time and save Fukushima!

Speaking of these expensive (and largely redundant) safety measures, a meeting of experts in Fukui on Sunday to present a safety report was interrupted repeatedly by shouting protestors.  The meeting had to be adjurned and reopened in another room, and this time the anti-nuclear activists were prevented from entering.  They responded by denouncing the meeting and complaining loudly that democracy was being subverted when the public was not allowed to attend important meetings.  Oh, well.

Maybe those activists would prefer to have even more deaths caused by unnecessary evacuation.  The Yomiuri Shinbun has reported 573 deaths as 'related' to the disaster.  These were people living in evacuation centers in the days, weeks and months after the nuclear 'crisis'.  In the general chaos of a genuine disaster that killed 20,000 people, many were left in conditions of extreme fatigue, old age and chronic disease without adequate health or nursing care.  Now, a large percentage of these people were elderly, but there is no doubt that many would still be alive today if they had been allowed to stay in their homes.  

As comparison, this is about 10 times the entire death toll from radiation in the Chernoby accident.

If that doesn't make you think the dangers of radiation are exaggerated, I'm not sure what would.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Earthquakes, risk and the Japanese psyche

The Japanese world is a very dangerous place.  Earthquakes, tsunami, floods, nuclear radiation, tornados, murder, lightning, foreigners, overseas travel, snakes, monkeys, wasps, bears, heatstroke, unemployment, overwork; every night on the news the dangers of some new terror are described in excruciating detail.  The only thing they apparently have no fear of is unintended irony, as statistically Japan is the safest country in the world, with the lowest or close to the lowest levels of crime and premature death (not to mention spontaneous dancing) in the history of humanity.  The real threats to society largely go unnoted: depression, loneliness, alcohol and tobacco, AKB48.

The fear of earthquakes is an excellent example of where the Japanese perception of risk results in a hugely sub-optimal outcome.  The earthquake and tsunami last year affected large areas of Tohoku, especially the prefectures of Ibaraki, Fukushima and Miyagi.  About 20,000 people were killed by the tsunami.  Yet this earthquake was completely unpredicted.  Indeed, the last time an earthquake of this magnitude was recorded in the region was in the 800s, and there are only a few incidents of quakes this size in recorded human history.  Japan is an earthquake-prone country; there will undoubtedly be fatal tremblors in the years to come; yet it is extremely unlikely that another quake of similar magnitude will occur in the near future.  In fact, there probably won't be one of similar size for decades or centuries.

That hasn't stopped the Japanese becoming obsessed with quakes and tsunamis.  Schools practice evacuation drills religiously, and town halls pore obsessively over topographic maps, searching feverishly for escape routes to hilltops that are 20 meters or more above sea level.  Most absurdly of all, areas affected by last year's tsunami have responded with the most extraordinary levels of surreal retrospective wishful thinking: land prices on hilltops have doubled or tripled, while land prices at sea level have dropped by 60% or more.  Meanwhile local governments draft plans to install tsunami-proof structures on rooftops for people to hold onto when forced to the roofs of their buildings.  This is despite the fact that these regions are the only areas in Japan that are safe from tsunami: statistically, they will, in all probability, be safe for about a thousand years.  The immense pressure on the tectonic plates nearby has been relieved for the foreseable future, and geologically it is the safest place in Japan.  In the words of Robin Williams in The World According to Garp,  the whole area has been pre-disastered.

At this point it's worth pointing out the atrocious record of earthquake forecasting.  Neither the Tohoku earthquake or the Kobe earthquake were predicted and both were completely unexpected in terms of ferocity.  Meanwhile, the Tokyo region is constantly brought up as the site of the imminently expected 'Big One'.  The truth is that earthquake prediction is such an inexact science that its success rate is little better than chance.  Put it this way: I'm not losing any sleep over it.

The Japanese are not a people that cope well with the unexpected.  They respond to surprise with yet more emphasis on preparing for what they can predict, regardless of its improbability.  They have yet to learn that flexibility in the face of the unexpected is a more useful attribute than a detailed and idealistic plan for a disaster that will probably never come.  As the Sunscreen Song pragmatically tells us:

The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never cross your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday.